The Prohibition Era is fascinating. It’s the stuff of drama and violence, of the literature of Hammett and Chandler, of gangster films and the noir genre, and of rather good social documentary. Prohibition provides such a compelling moral story, in which do-gooders overreach and disastrously fail, that we tend to see it everywhere. It’s also a myth that tends to obscure and prevent genuinely good things we can do as a society, and it stops us seeing the routine prohibition we’re all used to — and which we need.
Tasmania’s Legislative Council, for instance, recently moved to discuss banning tobacco, grandfathering in a restriction on buying tobacco or tobacco products for everybody born after 2000. It’s obviously raised a lot of controversy about whether the ban is warranted, and a concern (manifested by constant reference to the American experience of prohibition and the current ‘war on drugs’) that legal restriction will have unintended, disastrous consequences. People are just going to buy tobacco anyway if they want it enough, the argument goes, so why should we leave it to gangsters.
I think there’s a great deal of false economism at work here and some very questionable assertions. I’m not going to examine whether reducing smoking itself is a good thing or a restriction of freedom, because Jason Wilson recently wrote about just that here in the context of his own quitting. Whether it’s possible — and indeed if it’s desirable — to prohibit a drug being used out of existence, is a more interesting question. I say ‘yes, yes it is’, and if you think about it for a minute or so, you almost certainly do, too.
Let me illustrate the point. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘a Bex and a good lie down’. Bex, once a company of Australian iconic status similar to that of Vegemite or QANTAS, was, with the Vincents brand, one of two common drugs sold in vast quantities until the 1970s. They were a mixture of aspirin, caffeine, and a complex analgesic called phenacetin, and were used more or less recreationally, especially by women. Buying them over the counter, women used to take them to pass away the ordinary tedium of paid and domestic labour (as well, of course, for physical pain relief). Users would build up a tolerance to the analgesic, and a moderate dependency provided by the caffeine. ‘Powders’ were provided for free, in many cases, to women factory hands and manufacturing workers with tea and coffee, as Priscilla Kincaid-Smith, the surgeon who demonstrated their dangerous toxicity, remembers. They might have been great to numb boredom and pain but they also caused cancer and death by renal failure. In response to medical concern and community activism, complex analgesics were phased out in the 1970s. It’s been an unalloyed social and medical good.
So why, then, aren’t there Bex runners and Vincents bootleggers running the country the way Capone and his peers ran the whisky-soaked cities of the United States? Partly because drugs are able to be substituted of course. Paracetamol and ibuprofen and other far less harmful painkillers are as freely available as ‘powders’ ever were. Partly because our tolerance of people turning up to work affected by drugs has changed radically since the 1970s. ‘Long lunches’ and ‘ the hair of the dog’ for hangovers are exceptions to the rule for the vast majority of the workforce, indeed sacking offences, rather than informal perks of the job for skilled workers. Partly because there has always been far more medical involvement in analgesia, and because it’s relatively easy to regulate an industry which sells relatively complex chemicals. You can’t homebrew Panadol nearly as easily as you can make beer.
It’s more though, that it’s far, far easier to change a society’s habits and taboos around drug use than we acknowledge. ‘Powders’ were not a feature of sociability in the same way that alcohol and cigarettes are, and peer pressure was not a factor. Even around tobacco, in just the past 15 years we’ve changed in Australia from a culture where it was perfectly acceptable to smoke over an indoor, restaurant meal, or in an office, or on public transport, to one where it’s surprising and shocking to see old films and TV shows where this happens. We look at the policing and health failures of the ‘war on drugs’, of which there are many, but don’t seem to see the constant regulation and re-regulation, prohibition and permission, of huge numbers of other drugs by arms of the state. We’ve had moral and other panics around epidemics of heroin and amphetamine use, but as harmful and violent as the drugs trade is, it looks nothing like the harm that existed in the 19th and early 20th century, when opiates and speed were in every patent medicine.
Prohibition is never absolute. It’s a spectrum of formal and informal rules, taboos and desires: to paraphrase the introduction to the TV series The Bionic Man: we can put this regulation together. We have the governmentality.
And that regulation is always about far more than medicine and public health. It also embodies visions of what we want our society, and our cities, to look like, through our laws and practices. We already make strict legal prohibitions and informal taboos on alcohol, such as for those aged under 18 and people driving cars — and we break those rules. It’s utterly misleading to draw a rhetorical arrow from making drug laws, to enabling suited thugs with Tommy guns. We can’t look at the American Prohibition, in particular, without looking at what American society looked like in the 1920s and 1930s: quite apart from the pervasive armed violence peculiar to the United States, it was a profoundly different society then. The Temperance movement looked and behaved like nothing we would recognise today. Temperance movement members hated alcohol, true, but they were also an alliance of groups we could never conceive getting along today: early feminists, Christian evangelicals, millenarian socialists and Fabian-style reformers, public health eugenicists, miscellaneous progressives, modernist urban planners, cranks, true believers, and violent racists. In many Midwestern states, the primary instrument of popular Temperance was not government but the Ku Klux Klan, which when it wasn’t enforcing racial segregation and white supremacy, used its terrorism against drinkers, alcoholics and small illicit shopkeepers (who Australians would call ‘sly-groggers’). Temperance was a social failure before it was ever a public health failure.
In Istanbul, there is a social controversy raging about beer and raki, and municipalities in which it’s OK for these to be sold and drunk. Turkey’s religious parties are cracking down on drink and their secular parties are responding in kind. It’s not just, or even mostly, about getting drunk though, as one Turkish columnist in that article notes, it’s about freedom, secularity, morality and religion, the basics of what Turkish politics have been about for a very long time. In a real sense it’s the same argument as Australian cities have had recently about small bars, regional alcohol accords and licencing, and precisely the same argument that New South Wales has had around the Kings Cross injecting room. These are not arguments about drug use but about social norms and taboos of urban life, which are critical ones. If we can’t have discussions about what we want our cities to look like, and how we behave in them as a population, what’s the point of having politics at all?
Image from the Boston Public Library via Creative Commons Licence